Why the Lib Dems need a good registered supporters scheme
Back in 2015 when David Howarth and I wrote our pamphlet setting out how a core vote strategy would give the Liberal Democrats the foundation for durable success, the idea of creating a registered supporters scheme featured for two interlocking reasons.
First, the concept of being a member of a political party is, despite the recent resurgence in the membership of many parties, still something many people find off-putting. That’s why you find not only people who regularly vote for a party passing up on membership, you also find people who regularly put up a poster at election time doing so. And even some who regularly campaign for their chosen party too, most notably by delivering leaflets. That indicates a big missed opportunity to offer people something which better fits with what they want and what they are comfortable with.
Second, having a scheme with very low barriers to entry which people can join is an essential part of how all sorts of organisations build-up loyalty from their supporters, fans, customers or participants. The high churn rate amongst those who vote Liberal Democrat is, as David and I set out, a huge deadweight on the party’s success. A wider scheme which can help turn more Lib Dem voters into long-term loyal supporters isn’t just a question of maximising revenue or an organisational tactic: it would be a strategic move in the party’s rebuilding.
It’s worth noting that opening up their party to the wider public through such a scheme was similarly part of the Canadian Liberal Party’s strategy for recovery, one which took them back into government. Indeed, the basic idea of a party setting out to welcome into its structures new people in new ways is a regular feature of political recoveries from across the political spectrum.
Searching out new people to come and join the movement was also a distinguishing feature of Jo Grimond’s highly lauded leadership of the Liberal Party. As The Guardian reported (in its Llandudno Liberal Assembly coverage of 1962): “His first task was to find disciples, to persuade liberal-minded men and women who are in positions of responsibility and authority that they could themselves weaken the element of cynicism in modern society by entering politics themselves.”
All of which are good reasons to turn that registered supporters idea into reality.
The secret, accidental registered supporters scheme
There’s also another reason to create a proper registered supporters scheme. The party has unintentionally created one already, and it’s large: it has around 200,000 people in it, double the party’s current membership.
This creation wasn’t a deliberate plan. No conference motion was passed. No party committee gave it the green light. Its size is almost never reported on across the party. What’s more, most people in the party don’t even know it exists.
The data is kept mostly away from the party’s frontline campaigners – and in turn, the party’s grassroots campaigning is neither harnessed to recruit people to it nor is it directly aided by the current scheme’s incarnation.
Accidental, top-down, divorced from our grassroots and in effect secret. That doesn’t sound ideal and – as I’ll go on to detail – it isn’t.
It also means the default, what happens if we do nothing, isn’t not to have a registered supporters scheme. It’s to carry on with the one we’ve got.
The existing list of 200,000 plus people is the incidental side-effect of the very successful efforts to grow the party’s membership. A large part of that has been running online campaigns to get people signed up with their email addresses and into a funnel of activity which aims to raise money and turn them into members. The overwhelming focus is on generating members and money – and given that’s the remit the different staff working on this over the years were tasked with, it’s worth emphasising that it’s no criticism that this is just what they did – and did very successfully.
But the incidental side-effect was to build up this large database of people who have signed up to support at least one campaign (registered their support, one could say) and who don’t become members. They get some servicing from party HQ: but it’s from a small team whose main priority is money and members.
What’s more, having the whole system reliant on a small number of people in one place greatly reduces its potential benefits. It means that the huge volunteer capacity in local parties and party bodies across the country isn’t tapped to help involve and motivate registered supporters – or to recruit more.
The rest of the party doesn’t get to know who they all are, unless you sort of engineer it backwards by looking for petition data added to Connect that you know hasn’t come from your own local party. But even then, you don’t get to see their email addresses, and it’s nothing like as convenient or helpful or complete as having an actual list.
It also means that this pool of registered supporters is not integrated with the mini-pools that exist all around the party, such as the collections of non-member supporters who different local parties have in their leaflet delivery networks or on their social event invite lists.
The ability to tell registered supporters about what is happening locally and how they can get involved locally is massively curtailed by this HQ-only approach.
It is an approach whose roots are understandable. When I’ve asked HQ staff before about being able to access email addresses for the registered supporters for regional or local campaigning the answer has been that they don’t want just anyone in the party contacting these people in case that undermines the effectiveness of the money and membership sells people are taken through.
Not without logic, for sure, but also a long way short of optimal given the way it pans out: not integrated with the other lists of supporters in the party, not available to directly help grassroots campaigning, only able to be serviced by a small number of over-worked staff and focused overwhelmingly on being a money-raising operation rather than the creation of a grassroots campaigning movement.
Again, there’s a leaf that can be taken from the Canadian Liberal Party’s book: they too didn’t let just anyone in the party access their new supporters data. But what they did was set a quality standard for their equivalent of local parties: if you demonstrate the ability to run high-quality communications then you get access to the supporter data. That can even be turned into a positive incentive to train, learn and improve – as there’s a benefit available to your local party if you do so.
So how can we take the existing de facto scheme and make it into one that maximises the benefits for the party and fits our organisational priorities:
- Communicating our values
- Increasing our capacity
- Improving our diversity
- Digitising the party
- Local campaigning
How to make a scheme work: it’s not just about the mechanics
The mechanics of a registered supporter system are important and can be controversial – especially if they involve questions of internal democracy. They are, however, not the whole picture and indeed in the past, such as during Charles Kennedy’s time as leader, muted discussions about opening up the party to a wider network of supporters quickly got sucked into an internal, mechanistic focus.
That isn’t the whole picture, as consideration of why you’re a member or supporter of any other organisations quickly shows. Sometimes we sign up for what we get. I used to be a member of the British Film Institute to get cheaper cinema tickets and when my visits dropped off, I ceased. I didn’t join to cast a vote for BFI internal contests, even though membership gave me that. (In fact, even as someone who reads all the bits of paper they are sent, I found them quite baffling. What were all those coded references to choices of building really about?)
But often we sign up to express support. That’s why I am (I think) a member of the friends of a local green space – I wanted to support them, I gave them a donation and I’m happy to occasionally amplify their messages online. It’s about showing support for a good cause.
Likewise, a registered supporters scheme needs to be more than those dull words indicate (and why I’ve toyed with calling it a ‘friends of…’ scheme). Rather it needs branding as an outward-looking, welcoming and new way of involving people in fighting for the causes that are important to them.
A good related example of the power of branding an initiative effectively has been Your Liberal Britain’s collaboration with former party leader Paddy Ashdown for the Ashdown Prize for Radical Thought. The mechanics at the heart of the prize are little different from the support the party offers to anyone to submit a conference motion. If anything, the Ashdown Prize is a more convoluted process. However, the presentation of the scheme meant that while there are usually well under 100 motions submitted to a federal conference, the Ashdown Prize generated 1,140 suggestions. As a rough calculation, having a differently presented way of submitting ideas generated in one go more submissions than a decade of federal conferences have secured.
We already do a bit to involve registered supporters. Those emails with ‘exclusive’ early opportunities to view the next party political broadcast, for example, have not always been member-only. Those are baby steps for what could be possible.
Thinking more like a broader supporter organisation would be necessary. A chance to pose questions for Nick Clegg to ask in his next podcast? A book club featuring the likes of Jo Swinson and Lynne Featherstone? That’s the sort of content we would need to experiment with.
As such content takes time to think of, create and manage it enhances the value of having a registered supporters scheme that is one the whole party contributes to, rather than one which simply places more pressure on a small number of staff.
Getting the mechanics right
That branding, of course, won’t work if it doesn’t have the substance behind it to substantiate it. Attracting people to be a part of the fight for causes they believe in requires the party to continue to step up its running of issue-led campaigns – most notably the Stop Brexit campaign.
It also needs to fit with the rest of the party: both to tap the extra capacity to recruit and service supporters that comes from doing so and also because the best use of supporters is to tap them to help deliver our overall strategy of building up a grassroots campaigning movement. That means fully involving the grassroots in the supporters scheme.
It’s also the way to broaden out the party’s diversity – having a registered supporters that party bodies who reach out to particular communities can recruit into.
After branding, therefore, comes data: the data from the 200,000 secret-ish club plus that for the various ad hoc local lists around the country, not to mention party bodies who do outreach, need to be joined up in an integrated way that supports multiple parts of the party using it. One shared scheme rather than disparate, unintegrated and not mutually supporting schemes. That requires some hard thought on the best database(s) to use, the best way to share data and any necessary updates in the party’s data rules.
It should also involve copying that Canadian Liberal tactic mentioned above: if some data needs to be protected in order to maximise the fundraising potential for the party, then it should be done on the basis of local parties and party bodies who know what they’re doing and can show they can run excellent comms getting access rather than a blanket ban.
This will play to the different strengths of different parts of the organisation much better:
- using volunteer capacity to add to what can be done and using local knowledge to improve the communications and opportunities to get involved, and
- giving all parts of the party a stake in the scheme and so an interest in recruiting to it, whilst also
- drawing on the technical expertise at HQ in how best to get people signed up to campaigns and how best to maximise membership recruitment and fundraising.
The rights of supporters
Last but by no means least is where similar discussions in the past have tended to start (and not get much beyond): what rights should registered supporters have compared to fully paid-up members?
Aside from the question of voting rights at conference and in ballots, there’s a range of factors to consider.
Attending events: at a local level, this happens frequently already. The non-member deliverer gets invited to the thank you party. The non-member donor is allowed to buy tickets for a fundraising dinner. But for federal conference, in particular, there’s an obvious change to make: to allow registered supporters to come and be inspired without having to pay the (rightly) eye-watering rates reserved for non-members who are media, lobbyists and similar at the moment. That same logic can also be applied to across other events, such as state and regional conferences, too.
Party policy working groups: these are mostly, in effect, restricted to party members. But they don’t have to be, and indeed including a wider spread of sympathetic expertise in their membership could bring many benefits. Allowing registered supporters to apply to be members of such groups would still keep the safeguards of the current appointment process; it would also open up it more.
Becoming a party candidate: allowing non-members to run as official party candidates would be highly controversial and raise the question about what the point of membership at all is. However, that’s not quite the same as saying you have to be a member all the way along the process. In its most restrictive form, some party candidate processes require you to be a member for 12 months before you can go through the approval process (which can take several more months) which then, in turn, means that you can apply to be a candidate.
Parts of that process could be opened up to registered supporters too, such as allowing them to apply for approval and so to learn from that process more about whether or not being a candidate is for them before kicking in the requirement to join at a later stage.
This is also, whisper it quietly, what many local parties already do: they hunt out people who would be great councillors who are not yet members and take them through a process that doesn’t make joining the party and waiting months the initial step even though it does involve joining at some point. Having an easier route in than ‘pay up and wait a year’ has produced many great and dedicated Lib Dem councillors. The rest of the party could learn from what can work so well for local government.
Voting rights: the big one, in many ways. Should voting remain restricted to paid-up members? There’s a range of voting rights that can be argued over:
- Policy-making (votes at conference)
- All-member ballots (used very rarely)
- Candidate selections
- Party committees
- Party posts, including…
- Party leader
In all cases, you need to be a member to stand, a member to nominate someone and a member to vote. If the debates over creating a registered supporters scheme take-off, these issues risk being the predominant ones. I’ve left them to nearly the end to illustrate how much else there is deserving of attention.
For what it’s worth, I’m sceptical about changing the franchise rules, though ideas such as adding in a registered supporters element to the nomination requirements for a would-be leader has merit. More importantly, I believe the franchise issue is best placed at the end of the process, not the start. Create a new, effective registered supporters scheme, learn from how it develops and then address the franchise issue in the context of what we’ve seen and learnt. Otherwise, the risk is the process stalls before it starts..
One related reform that definitely would make sense is to push back the last date on which people can join the party in order to vote in party contests. Usually, this is the close of nominations but, just as we’ve seen with public elections where registration used to work to such early deadlines, there’s merit in having a later date to get more people involved as they see a contest playing out. The logistics of being able to get ballot papers to people in time are non-trivial for postal ballots, but where voting is in person or electronically, a later cut off date would be a different and practical way of getting more people more involved.
So that’s how I see the idea of a registered supporters scheme: a necessary part of the party’s recovery and a good way to get more out of the accidental existing scheme that you may well not have known even existed.
What’s your take? Do join the discussion on Facebook or drop me an email reply.
Now on to some of the usual features…
News in brief: 7 steps to stopping Brexit
Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader Jo Swinson has set out seven steps to stopping Brexit (or rather six, plus a bonus seventh for residents of Lewisham East). Her colleague Layla Moran meanwhile has been highlighting the problems with grammar schools and Vince Cable has predicted that the Lib Dems will once more be running Sheffield Council within the next five years. His predecessor but one, Nick Clegg, has been in the news urging businesses to speak out more over Brexit. Former Lib Dem MP Jenny Willott has been awarded an OBE.
Long-time party activist and councillor (for over 30 years) Colin Rosenstiel has passed away. For years he was central to the running of internal party elections, and his website provided the one consistent and reliable source for the results. He also helped create the STV counting systems the party uses to apply diversity rules in party contests.
Tim Farron got into trouble for accepting before rejecting an invitation to speak at a Christian event that was showcasing extremist views such as warnings of a ‘Gay lobby onslaught’.
In Cambridge, Cllr Donald Adey quit the party in a ‘jump before you are pushed’ move after he moved 400 miles away but declined to stand down as a local councillor. Also lost to the party is David Yates in St Albans after he was removed from the planning committee in a Lib Dem reshuffle. In switches to other parties, former High Peak Parliamentary candidate Charles Lawley has joined the Conservatives and the Conservatives have also picked up the only Lib Dem Town Councillor in Stroud, Steve Dechan. Curiously, he gave as one of his reasons for switching that he wants to protect the rights of Europeans to work in the UK.
But the party has picked up a new convert from the Conservatives in Kirklees, and an earlier switcher, Kishan Devani, has written about how Islamaphobia in the Tories helped trigger his switch. The Home Office, meanwhile, doesn’t want to let another Lib Dem councillor continue to live in Britain.
Give your Lib Dem campaigning a boost
Increasingly, the online world is the frontline for political struggles. But why leave it just to the extremists and peddlers of fake news to be good at promoting their causes? We liberals, democrats and Liberal Democrats need to step up too.
So want to get better at promoting the Lib Dems in what you do online? Then the short set of daily tips in my Liberal Democrat Digital Power-Up course are just for you and there is also a special newsfeed for anyone running a Lib Dem social media account.
Have you got Jo Swinson’s book yet?
Brexit will be an issue for decades to come
In case you missed them first time round, here are the highlights from my blog over the last month:
It’s been a busy few weeks for Parliamentary selections, including a welcome continuation of the trend of Lib Dem Parliamentary selections in weaker areas. For the fullest list available of those selected so far, check out my website (more names to add to the list always very welcome).
Council by-elections are now picking up steam again and that pattern of progress against the Conservatives in shire England continues:
To get the full council by-election results every week, sign up for my blog posts digest.
What people make of Lib Dem meetings
Many thanks to everyone who took part in the joint Liberal Democrat Newswire / Your Liberal Britain survey into what people think of the meetings and events the party puts on. Following up on the coverage last time, further results are included below.
A brief summary of what people make of Lib Dem meetings and other events is ‘people are friendly, it’s not so clear that the time is used well, turning meetings into action seems a bit hit and mess, and there’s often no follow-up afterwards’.
Something to remember when you’re next involved in organising one.
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